Five Days in the (Food) Desert

BY Betty Ann Bowser  June 3, 2010 at 5:27 PM EDT

I recently spent five days in the “desert” with three of my PBS NewsHour colleagues.

It wasn’t your ordinary run-of-the-mill desert. There was no sand. It wasn’t blazing hot. I didn’t see Lawrence of Arabia or a single camel. But it was, nonetheless, a desert. A food desert.

At least that’s what the experts call it. According to one of the first academic surveys done of counties across the non-metropolitan south in 2006, a food desert is a place where 50 percent or more of the population has low access to a supermarket.

Using that criterion, the Southern Rural Development Center and researchers at Mississippi State University found that 256 of those same 873 southern counties were food deserts. Texas, Alabama, Arkansas and Oklahoma had the highest percentage of counties classified as food deserts. But the Mississippi Delta — birthplace of the blues and home to some of the country’s poorest people — despite its rich farmland had significant clusters of food deserts as well.

So when First Lady Michelle Obama started talking about food deserts earlier this year, and how they are a major contributor to the country’s childhood obesity problem, our health unit decided it was time to examine this problem.

For five days, health producer Bridget DeSimone, reporter producer Lea Winerman, cameraman Brian Gill and I traveled up and down the northwestern part of Mississippi talking to people who live in food deserts.

On the first day, a Sunday, we went to Lambert, Mississippi, to tape services and share the beautiful spring day with members of the New Mt. Zion Baptist Church. Three hours later, we were hungry for lunch.

Members of the congregation directed us to the nearby town of Marks where we were told we’d find several drive-ins and a McDonald’s.

Well, not exactly gourmet fare, but at least we would be able to get a fresh salad. However, when we walked in and looked up at the illuminated menu there was a sign penned in black magic marker taped over the salad portion that read “not served at this location.”

Now, I have been to all 50 states, including Alaska. I have eaten a lot of bad food. But I have never encountered a McDonald’s that didn’t serve salads.

We would make do. Next choice.

We ordered four broiled chicken sandwiches. At least that was an alternative to the quarter pounder with or the other “crispy” deep fried chicken sandwich on the menu.

This was not a broiled-chicken kind of place. The cooks said they normally only did the “crispy” kind. But the polite staff agreed to make us four of the healthier chicken sandwiches if we didn’t mind waiting 15 minutes.

Then, they apologized for the delay and said they had given each of us a free dessert for being so patient. They were so nice that all we could do was smile when we opened the bags and found our free gifts were four deep-fried apple pies!

And that’s kind of the way it went. Another memorable meal was the buffet lunch of fried chicken, fried pork chops, collard greens cooked in bacon fat, home made hot rolls and cornbread slathered in butter and a yummy peach cobbler covered with vanilla ice cream for desert.

Well, at least it wasn’t deep fried apple pie.

We did find a wonderful restaurant owned by the actor Morgan Freeman in the town of Clarksdale. But it was very, very expensive. And it was a 30-mile drive each way from our motel.

For the people who live in the food deserts in the Mississippi Delta it’s the same deal. To find fresh, healthy food they have to drive long distances or take their chances at the local convenience store.

The one in Lambert (the ONLY one) had no fresh fruit or vegetables on the day we were there and the prices were high.

So it’s no wonder that researchers say Mississippi has more adults and more kids who are obese than any other state in the nation.

They also find a connection between food deserts and being poor.

Nearly one in three people in the Mississippi Delta live below the federal government’s poverty line. Most cannot afford to own a car. That’s why researchers have also found transportation to be a big concern. For people who live in Lambert, it’s about 30 miles to get to a big chain operated supermarket.

One life long resident of Lambert told us how things had changed in her town over the past 30 years. She lovingly remembered her grandmother’s vegetable garden where most of the family’s food was grown.

But no more.

First, she said, the textile mill closed. Then the grain elevator. People lost their jobs. Today there is almost no work locally. More than half of all families are on food stamps. Many are so poor their kids eat two meals a day at school under the federal government’s free breakfast and lunch program.

Single moms are the rule here, not the exception. Many work two jobs to survive. One teenager we met at M.S. Palmer High School in Marks said most nights her dinner consists of whatever her mother brings home from the casino where she works. Mom sometimes has 11-hour days so it’s not unusual for the evening meal to hit the front door after 10:00pm at night.

But it’s not all bleak, as the NewsHour reported in piece that aired last month. There’s the 17-year-old who’s dropped two clothing sizes since she decided to pay attention to her diet. And her grandmother, who cooks the family meals, who’s lost weight and improved her diabetic condition.

And the state of Mississippi has removed deep fryers from more than 1,000 of its public school cafeterias and replaced them with ovens.

But as research shows, obesity is a national health problem that is caused by a complex set of factors: tradition, culture, poverty and as we found out personally … easy access to good healthy food.

We’ll have more on food deserts in the Mississippi Delta on the NewsHour Thursday.